To the trees at Sweetland Orchard, 2012 was the year of the false spring, an unmitigated disaster, but Gretchen Perbix would later come to see opportunity there, as well.
On St. Patrick’s Day that March, temperatures hit a record high 78, leading the apple trees at her orchard, just east of New Prague, to blossom early. Well into April, the weather did a characteristic about-face, and nightly temperatures plunged into the teens.
The freeze killed off 90 percent of their blossoms, and the same proportion of their apples. With no fruit to sell, she skipped the farmer’s markets and began experimenting with cider.
There was no textbook; they mixed different types of yeast with braeburns, galas and other varieties and tasted the results.
“We drank a lot of bad cider,” she says. They hit upon some appetizing combinations, too, and in the last few years the cider side of the business has taken off. It now accounts for about 85 percent of their sales, Perbix said.
What started as a form of insurance against crop loss revealed a fascinating new side to apples. They make 10 varieties, including some from apples developed at the University of Minnesota and grow in Minnesota, like Haralson and Honeygold.
“Cider is still a largely misunderstood beverage category, but Minnesotans take a lot of pride in apples,” said Perbix, who is also president of the Minnesota Cider Guild. “When Minnesotans get to try craft cider, they’ll be surprised about what gets made in their backyard.”
Perbix has found even the basics about cider are often surprising. Some people mistakenly think it’s a variety of beer; one web survey last year found that the No. 2 most-recognized cider brand was Mike’s Hard Lemonade, which is not a cider
For that reason, she has plenty of in-depth conversations with customers. She recommends new drinkers sample their cider (they offer free tastings) to find a variety they like. They tend to taste very different from national brands, she says, which tend to be sweeter.
Still, the demand for a visit to an orchard is typically limited to the fall, so they only sell their cider in September and October weekends, plus the Saturday before Thanksgiving. They are sold in a limited number of liquor stores throughout the metro area and south-central Minnesota, including Blue Earth County.
The longest-running local cidery is Harbo Cider, located next to Welsh Heritage Farms just off Highway 60 between Mankato and Lake Crystal. The cider master is Tim Harbo, a part owner of Welsh Heritage who has been making cider with apples grown at his family’s orchard for more than 10 years.
“It’s more of a traditional, drier cider, there’s more of a bite to it,” he said. Their single variety of cider, called Splittladder Syder, surprises some customers, but the people who like it really like it and tend to come back for ore.
They only make one variety, and it’s only sold at their cider house, which is open every weekend from noon to 6 p.m. through the weekend before Thanksgiving.
“I’d like to do more expansion, but we’ve been growing (in other parts of the business) so much,” that that haven’t had extra attention to lavish on their cider business.
Hard cider today is often compared to where the then-nascent craft brewing industry was in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Though there are about 16 cideries in Minnesota, the trend has taken off faster on the coasts; there are about 65 cideries in Washington state.
To Harbo, the better comparison is with wine, including the growth in local wineries.
Just as with beer and wine, craft cider drinkers are often looking for a local connection to their libations. He says he’s a bit surprised craft cider hasn’t caught on more in Minnesota, but there are limitations. Growing apples takes time and space — Harbo said his initial license required half of his apples to come from Minnesota — and plenty of specialized equipment is needed to brew cider.
Even growing the fruit in Minnesota took some time; it’s only been within the last 100 years that varieties have been developed who can stand the state’s cold, Harbo said. The first apple to grow in Minnesota was called the Wealthy, a variety that still grows among the 2,500 or so trees at Welsh Heritage Farms.
Welsh Heritage Farm
20758 528th Ave., Lake Crystal